The first Grand Slam of 2019 is upon us, with the Australian Open set to kick off Monday in Melbourne, which is Sunday night stateside. While the tournament has made some headlines for air quality concerns during qualifying, it's time to turn our attention to the on-court action. On the women's side, Serena Williams continues her quest to equal Margaret Court's Grand Slam record, while Caroline Wozniacki gets set to bid farewell to the sport. Read on to see which players are primed for success in the hard-court heat and which ones could be heading home early, as well as my pick for the title winner.
Ashleigh Barty - Barty will be the top seed at her home slam for the first time after making a run to the quarterfinals here last year before subsequently capturing her first career Grand Slam title at the French Open. She closed the 2019 season by taking home the title at the WTA Finals, then won the warmup tournament in Adelaide in the week leading up to the Australian Open, and the 23-year-old Aussie will be eager to live up to her No. 1 ranking on the biggest stage in front of her fellow Australians. While potential third-round opponent Elena Rybakina is a 20-year-old on the rise, Barty will be heavily favored if she meets the No. 29 seed at that stage and the same goes for a potential fourth-round clash against No. 13 seed Petra Martic, against whom Barty is 2-0 lifetime. Among the top players, Barty appears to have the easiest path to the quarterfinals.
Serena Williams - Serena's chase for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title is approaching three years in the making, as she took home No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open. She's gone 0-4 in Grand Slam finals since then, but Serena's biggest challenges are likely to come prior to that stage in this tournament, which could be a blessing in disguise if she's able to get through potential matchups with No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals and Barty in the semis. Her quest for No. 24 is also made easier by the fact that Bianca Andreescu – who beat Williams in the 2019 US Open final – is sidelined by a knee injury. It's championship or bust for Williams, and she certainly looked to be in championship form during the warmup tournament at Auckland, which she won while dropping only one set along the way.
Karolina Pliskova - Pliskova's in the easier bottom half of the draw, while Williams, Osaka and Barty will cannibalize each other in the top half. She'll potentially have to jump through some tricky American hurdles early on – wild card CoCo Vandeweghe could prove to be a tough second-round opponent, Auckland runner-up Jessica Pegula (daughter of Buffalo Bills and Sabres owner Terry Pegula) is a potential third-round obstacle and 21st seed Amanda Anisimova could prove to be her toughest test of all. Nonetheless, the No. 2 seed is well positioned to overcome those early tests after winning the Brisbane International earlier this week.
Kiki Bertens - Bertens comes into this tournament battling an Achilles injury, which forced her to withdraw from Adelaide less than a week ago. The No. 9 seed also just missed out on a top-eight spot, which means she could have the misfortune of drawing a top-eight seed (No. 5 Elina Svitolina) in the Round of 16 should Bertens get that far. Even reaching that point will be a major challenge for Bertens, as she has only exceeded the second round once in seven previous trips to Australia and would have to get through 21st-seeded American standout Amanda Anisimova in the third round.
Simona Halep - Halep's also in the more open bottom half of the draw, but she hasn't replicated Pliskova's form to start 2020, losing to Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets in the quarterfinals of Adelaide. Halep's early draw is also extremely tricky. Her only previous match against first-round opponent Jennifer Brady required a third-set tiebreak, and 2019 Australian Open semifinalist Danielle Collins likely awaits in the third round.
Amanda Anisimova - Anisimova has looked good early in 2020 after taking some time off in the second half of 2019, reaching the semifinals in Auckland before falling to Williams. The 18-year-old American burst onto the scene with a run to the Round of 16 at the 2019 Australian Open, following that up with a semifinal run at the French Open. While injuries and the death of her father derailed the second half of her 2019 campaign, Anisimova's back as the No. 21 seed and ready to continue her career's upward trajectory.
Caroline Wozniacki - Wozniacki has announced that she will retire after the 2020 Australian Open, as the oft-injured Dane will pay one more visit to the tournament at which she finally got the Grand Slam monkey off her back in 2018. She just missed being seeded here with a No. 35 ranking, and Wozniacki played well in the warmup tournament in Auckland, making a run to the semifinal. She draws Kristie Ahn – who was on the verge of dropping tennis herself prior to a surprise Round of 16 run at the 2019 US Open – in the first round, then should get an opportunity to play spoiler against the likes of No. 23 seed Dayana Yastremska and No. 12 seed Johanna Konta before a possible fourth-round clash with Serena Williams.
For such a scenario to unfold, there's a good chance Barty will have to take out the winner of a Naomi Osaka-Serena Williams blockbuster quarterfinal. The winner of the Osaka-Williams match could be vulnerable after what will likely be a physically and emotionally draining affair, and Barty will enjoy a home-field advantage of sorts in every match. The winner of a potential fourth-round match between Anisimova and Pliskova would be well positioned to emerge from the lighter half of the draw, but the young American would likely be overwhelmed by her more seasoned opponent, not unlike how Barty found a way to defeat Anisimova in the 2019 French Open semis en route to the title.
FIRST ROUND UPSET WATCH
The 20-year-old Vondrousova reached the final of the 2019 French Open, but she's just 6-9 in Grand Slams outside of that run. Meanwhile, Kuznetsova is a two-time Grand Slam champion who knows how to win, and the 34-year-old Russian showed she still has some gas left in the tank with a strong North American hard-court swing in the summer of 2019, which included a run to the final of the Premier 5 in Cincinnati.